Someone said to me recently – I think it was Charles Burnham – that the ailments that visit you in your 30s and 40s come back to stay with you in your old age. I haven’t had any visitors – and I’m not keeping the porch light on for houseguests, either. This little story is a strong example of what it means to stay vigilant and fight for your good health.
Because I’m fairly in tune with my body, I’m acutely aware when something is wrong. While on tour in Dresden, Germany, I was quite suddenly in so much pain with what I thought was an earache that I asked to see a doctor. It felt as though a needle was pushing its way directly into my ear canal, causing a shooting pain that ran down my neck. My voice remained unaffected – but how long would that last? I didn’t want to wait to find out.
I had never had emergency medical care by a general practitioner in Europe. What would this experience be like in comparison to what I usually get in America when I’m uninsured?
Eva (our Austrian tour manager) got a few phone numbers from the hotel and made an appointment to see a doctor on a Friday after 8am, when their offices opened. When I saw her at breakfast, she said I was in line to be seen as soon as possible. Thanks to a childhood that included way too much art house cinema, this remark filled my head with images of starving desperate filthy eastern Europeans in endlessly long breadlines, shrouded by snow and grey skies wrapped gently within an overall sheen of desolation and despair. Our leisurely sun drenched10 minute walk to the doctor’s office was quite the contrast. We even marveled at the beautiful architecture as we went along.
There was a line, as it turns out – but it wasn’t what I expected. It felt as though we were waiting to check out a book from the library. We stood in a clean, well-lit vestibule with a few others for awhile and then suddenly we were at a desk explaining ourselves to a sweet faced girl in white who took my information and led us to a waiting room. In no time at all – something like 15 minutes, maybe? -- I was sitting in the doctor’s office. He was a little on the young side, a boyish looking 40-something perhaps, smiling and open and friendly, and was dressed in jeans and a dark, striped, button down shirt. I sat in a chair next to his desk, which was expansive and well-organized, and he leaned back in this huge ergonomically correct chair and listened to me attentively as I pointed at my neck and gesticulated. Needless to say, his English was perfect. The whole thing felt like a job interview. Or a really terrific blind date. We should have been having coffee and pastry as we chatted. Sitting there, looking at him in his black crocs, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where were his many, many degrees from expensive inaccessible universities? Shouldn’t they have been hanging on the wall behind him, constantly reinforcing his authority and expertise? Where was his equipment? Wasn’t he supposed to be wearing a stethoscope or something? How about some id tags? And where was his white jacket?
When I asked him this last question, he laughed. “Yes, that’s right,” he said casually. “I wore a white jacket in Canada…” Equipment? He nodded toward the bookshelf behind me, where a stethoscope sat on a shelf, glistening in the phosphorescent light like an overfed garden snake. As I regaled him with stories of American doctors and hospitals and how this might work if I were stateside, he examined my neck and throat and listened with interest. He seemed bemused.
Then came the diagnosis. My ear was fine. My voice was fine. The tube that runs from my ear to my throat -- the Eustachian tube -- was infected. How did this happen?
“Have you had a cold?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a cold. I even made sure that I got my annual flu shot before I left home.
“Was your nose clogged, was your head congested at all?” he asked.
That’s when it hit me. I had been crying constantly for days. This is all Jef’s fault.
The doctor wrote a prescription for nose drops and a cream that is to be inhaled with steam. And with that, our visit was over as abrubtly as it began. If I was in that room longer than 10 minutes, I’ll eat my favorite pumps.
Here’s the upshot: I presented myself as a foreigner, I gave them NO insurance information – just my passport. That little visit cost me 30 Euros. The medication was only 15 Euros. That’s something like $60. Even if the rate of currency was 2 of our dollars for every one of theirs, I would still have paid less than $100. We were in and out of there in less than an hour. I was more than astonished. I was impressed.
I remember sitting in the van as we zipped down the highway, more than just a little freaked out as I considered the American no insurance alternative: sitting in the triage section of an emergency room’s waiting area for hours on end, eventually sifting through a stack of paperwork only to wait and wait and wait until a doctor sees you, hurls you through some expensive equipment if you’re lucky or tosses some Tylenol at you if you aren’t. That bill would be for hundreds upon hundreds of dollars. If you have coverage, you’ll spend months haggling with the insurance company over it. If you don’t have insurance, you’ll give a false name, address and social security number, and then you will disappear. Or you will give them your correct information and pay hundreds of dollars for what would have cost you less than $50 in a place that used to be behind the Iron Curtain.
Would Jonathan Larsen -- creator of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical RENT -- be alive today if he’d seen a European doctor instead of an American one? He’d probably still be here if he had insurance during his emergency room visits to two different hospitals because it would have compelled hospital administrators to take him seriously and order the tests he needed – expensive tests that run on expensive equipment that would ultimately have saved his life.
I have insurance but that doesn’t mean that my days of munching on fresh fruit and praying that I don’t get hit by a bus are over. Plenty of Americans have all the insurance they could possibly want. And they get a major illness and get bilked out of their life savings. Why, it’s almost as though corporations are constantly scheming on how to get as much of everyone’s money as they possibly can. We’ll be a country of the very rich and the very poor in no time at all. The haves and the have nots. And of course, the haves will say that what you have or don’t have will be entirely your own fault. You just didn’t work hard enough.
Whoever came up with the idea of America being a place where everyone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps should be taken out back and horsewhipped for all eternity. The idea of such a notion – if I work hard, I can have whatever I want! – is appealing, but it’s just flat out not true. First of all, this great nation has worked very hard to disenfranchise a great number of its citizens since its very inception – and in many ways, it continues to do so, unabated. Jim Crow? Segregation? Voting rights for everyone – not just white men who own property? Slavery – a topic that NO ONE wants to openly acknowledge or discuss. Give me a break. Secondly, no man is an island. No one does anything in and of themselves. Land grants? The G.I. Bill? Free (yes, free!) college tuition? Give me yet another break. And last but not least, there’s institutionalized racism. You know. It’s that thing that tilts absolutely everything in this country to your white advantage.
But I digress.
Americans seem blissfully unaware of how well other first world nations live. If they knew what they could be getting for their hard earned tax dollars, they would riot in the streets. As one ex-pat said to me after a gig in Dresden:: “Why should I go back to the USA? There’s no poverty here. They have universal health care. They pay for your education. They have gun control.” He paused, shrugged and continued. “While America is squabbling, everyone else is living in the 21st century.” He’s right. That’s a 21st century way to live.
Because I'm convinced that Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko should be required viewing for anyone in this country that doesn’t want universal health care and anyone else that's curious about what's really happening in the health care industry, I've included it below in its entirety.
And no, I’m not a socialist.